Resorts eager to draw holiday travelers, but survey finds fewer of them

Judging by the questions prospective guests ask when they call her beachfront hotel, some people seem to think that Ocean City got washed away by Hurricane Irene, says longtime employee Carol Dickel.

"They're asking, 'Are you still there? Is everything OK? Can we come down?'"

Dickel is quick to reassure callers that the 180-room Castle in the Sand hotel held up well and has fully reopened.

Like Dickel, many hoteliers and merchants at Maryland and Delaware resorts are eager to show Labor Day travelers that there is life after Hurricane Irene. But they may have trouble drawing the kinds of crowds they have seen in the past, according to travel industry analysts.

The number of Marylanders who will travel 50 miles or more over Labor Day weekend is projected to decline 2. 7 percent to about 604,000 from more than 620,000 last year, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Businesses say they can't recoup lost revenue from the hurricane and its aftermath, but they are looking for a strong finish to the summer. After having no guests at all last weekend save an NBC news crew, Dickel said Castle in the Sand is nearly sold out for the Labor Day weekend.

"We're doing terrific for this weekend, better than usual," she said at midweek. Out of 180 rooms, "we have nine left for Friday, five left for Saturday and 10 left for Sunday. ... And we still have a few days to fill them up."

The people who responded to the AAA travel survey pointed to early school starts, high gas prices, uncertainty about the economy and lack of discretionary income as some of the reasons they will stay home. In addition, according to AAA, some are still coping with property damage or power loss from Hurricane Irene — or expenses after the storm.

The hurricane impact could cut both ways, travel analysts said. Some people who own vacation homes may use the long weekend to see what storm-related damage their properties suffered, while others who canceled trips because of Irene may want to get away for Labor Day instead.

And in the Baltimore area, people may choose to visit the Maryland State Fair or the Baltimore Grand Prix rather than leave town.

"It's hard to say. … There are lots of variations to what people are doing or not doing," said Ragina C. Averella, manager of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Although fewer Marylanders have indicated they will take a Labor Day getaway this year, Averella said, "a favorable weather forecast for the last unofficial summer weekend could lead to a last-minute uptick in travel, especially since last weekend was a washout."

The storm did severe economic damage to the state's coffers. According to Comptroller Peter Franchot, Maryland lost more than $2 million in direct revenue last weekend because of the hurricane.

The figures include an estimated $1.75 million in lost sales tax revenue; $150,000 in lost employee withholding taxes; $60,000 in gas tax revenue from canceled weekend trips; $45,000 In lost toll revenue at the Bay Bridge, and nearly $40,000 in lost admissions and amusement tax revenue.

The AAA projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Global Insight of Boston. IHS surveyed 1,350 U.S. households in July and conducted more extensive interviews with 345 respondents who indicated they planned Labor Day trips. The survey defined Labor Day holiday travel as round trips of 50 miles or more from Sept. 1 to Sept. 5.

Averella said the Maryland projections are consistent with the rest of the country, which estimated 31.5 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more over the holiday, a 2.4 percent decrease from last year.

Fewer Marylanders traveled during this year's Fourth of July holiday — there was a 2.9 percent decline compared to the year before — while travel was essentially unchanged during Memorial Day, she said.

Despite AAA's forecast, officials in Ocean City and other leisure-oriented destinations say they are optimistic that they will have a busy weekend.

"Projections are very good for a successful weekend in Ocean City," said Donna Abbott, the town's communications manager. "I've heard from a few hotels that bookings are very strong. The weather looks good, and we're seeing increased traffic on the road every day."

In terms of the hurricane, "we fared very well, and we know it," Abbott added. "The beach replenishment program did its job. We're very fortunate."

Abbott noted that Ocean City was having a good summer before Hurricane Irene hit, based on hotel room tax revenues. They were up were up 13 percent in May compared with the same period last year, and June revenues were up 3.5 percent over last year, she said.

Linda Parkowski, director of tourism for the state of Delaware, said most businesses there have recovered after the storm and officials are anticipating "a strong turnout" at the beaches and other attractions over Labor Day holiday.

Back at the Castle in the Sand, Dickel observes that it often comes down to the weather report this time of year.

"Every time the weatherman says we're going to have a good weekend, the phone starts ringing with people who want to get in one more visit," she said. "We're going to have snow soon enough."

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